Aermacchi began producing motorcycles in c. 1951; the first Aermacchi to be marketed to the public was a scooter/motorcycle hybrid called the 'Convertible'
Credit: Richard Backus
It made perfect sense in 1960. With the Japanese invasion taking hold, Harley-Davidson needed something competitive in the small bike segment. The options: further development of their 165cc two-stroke single or a completely new design — or buy a turnkey business. Aermacchi, of Varese, Italy, fit the bill to a tee: they built a sturdy and competent 250cc bike (derived from Alfredo Bianchi s futuristic 175cc Chimera of 1955) with good performance and lots of development potential. Better yet, Aermacchi s parent company, Aeronautica Macchi, wanted to focus on its airplane business, and was keen to divest its bike operations. Harley bought a 50 percent share.
The sporty Aermacchi Ala d Oro (Gold Wing) featured a four-stroke overhead-valve single with horizontal cylinder and four-speed transmission, with the engine suspended from a spine frame. It looked like a good fit: overhead valve four-strokes were something H-D dealers were familiar with — no fancy overhead cams or ring-ding oil smoke haze.
The first Aermacchi Harley-Davidson Sprint went on sale in the U.S. in 1961. The speedy 250 quickly became popular in production racing, and was gradually improved over the years.
A 350cc version proved potent in GP racing, too, culminating in the 1968-1970 race seasons, when Aermacchis made up four of the top 10 places in the Isle of Man Junior TT each year and grabbed a pair of second place finishes in 1969 and 1970.
Unfortunately, little of the race technology (such as the five-speed transmission and short-stroke cylinder dimensions) made it to the street bikes, although H-D did boost the Sprint to 350cc for 1969.
Meanwhile, the engine got a cosmetic makeover, with the cylinder, head and rocker box blended together. Two versions of the Aermacchi Harley-Davidson 350 Sprint appeared: the SS with a one-into-two exhaust and low pipes, and the offroad oriented SX with a high pipe, high fenders and knobby tires.
This was a time of rapid change in the motorcycle market, however. The race for power and performance was well underway, led by hi-tech cammy Hondas and increasingly frantic two-stroke twins from Bridgestone, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. Race versions of Yamaha s 350s were already challenging the big four-stroke Grand Prix bikes.
Aermacchi began producing motorcycles in c. 1951; the first Aermacchi to be marketed to the public was a scooter/motorcycle hybrid called the 'Convertible', with the majority of working parts semi-enclosed, an under-saddle engine and foot boards, a conventional motorcycle fuel tank position and 17 in (430 mm) wheels. It was succeeded in 1953 by the 'Zeffiro' which was offered with a 125 cc or 150 cc two-stroke engine; these later models had upgraded suspension but remained similar in appearance. In 1955 they produced the 125 cc Monsone, followed by the 150 cc Corsaro, both of which had pivoted fork rear suspension and telescopic front forks. They were two-strokes like the early models and ran a 4-speed gearbox. In 1956 they produced their first over head valve four-stroke engine on the Chimera fitted horizontally, a layout which would become a standard for the marque. Similar to their first offering, the Chimera kept many enclosed working parts. In 1957 they released a series of sport models, powered by a single cylinder ohv engine in 175 cc or 250 cc displacements. Aermacchi continued with scooter production, but sales were poor and they were unable to compete in the market amongst the well established Vespas and Lambrettas, and concentrated solely on the production of motorcycles.
1960s and beyond
In 1960, US business Harley-Davidson motorcycles purchased 50% of Aermacchi's motorcycle division. The Italian branch of the brand was named 'Aermacchi-Harley-Davidson' and the first bike was a variation of the 'Ala Verde' suitably modified for the American market. This was also the year that the Chimera ceased production. The remaining motorcycle holdings were sold in 1974 to AMF-Harley-Davidson, with motorcycles continuing to be made at Varese. The business was sold to Cagiva in 1978.
After the Harley Davidson takeover, Aermacchi branched out into racing with a 250 cc production-volume Ala d'Oro for road racing competition. Early results varied but over years of bike development the team placed third during the 1966 350 cc World Championship with racer Renzo Pasolini and third again in 1968 with Kelvin Carruthers. The following year Carruthers competed at the Isle of Man TT, despite moderate success Harley-Davidson lost interest in the Italian offshoot.
List of Motorcycle Models (incomplete)
- 250 Cross
- 500 Linto
- Ala Azzura
- Ala Bianca
- Ala d'Oro (Golden Wing) [1958-1961]
- Ala Rossa
- Ala Verda
- Sprint 250
- Sprint 350
- Wisconsin 250